This is the second installment in a multipart series to educate electric cooperative members about power generation and the increased challenges facing electric utilities, including the Electric Cooperatives of Arkansas. To read more, visit aecc.com/balance-of-power/.
It’s the kind of warning that makes one’s blood run cold.
“A large portion of the North American bulk power system is at risk of insufficient electricity supplies during peak winter conditions.”
These chilling words appeared in the 2023-2024 Winter Reliability Assessment released in November by North American Electric Reliability Corp. (NERC), a not-for-profit international regulatory authority.
Such warnings are something that electric cooperatives — with a mission of keeping the lights (and heat) on in rural America at affordable costs — take seriously.
As Electric Cooperatives of Arkansas CEO Vernon “Buddy” Hasten said when testifying before a U.S. Senate committee on the subject, “When the reliability of the electric grid fails, it almost always results in financial catastrophe and loss of human life.”
As for what is causing these concerns, and what can be done, here are some questions and answers to explain:
Why is the reliability of the electric grid at risk?
A simple answer to a complex matter: Supply and demand. There is increasing demand for electricity at a time when there is decreasing reliable supply.
Why is there a decreasing reliable power supply?
A primary factor is the premature closure of dispatchable generation facilities.
Dispatchable resources produced by nuclear, coal and natural gas plants are the backbone of the wholesale electricity supply for the United States.
But many reliable generation facilities — workhorses that dependably provide affordable energy — are being forced into retirement due to federal government regulations to reduce carbon emissions. These dispatchable resources are being replaced with intermittent resources, which by their nature, are not always available when needed.
Is this happening in Arkansas?
Yes. Two coal plants co-owned by Arkansas Electric Cooperative Corporation (AECC), the wholesale power supplier for the local electric cooperatives in Arkansas, — White Bluff Steam Electric Station in Redfield and Independence Steam Electric Station near Newark — will be required to cease burning coal in 2028 and 2030 respectively. Hasten said, “This represents a loss of 25% of our (AECC’s) power portfolio.”
In addition, proposed federal rules to reduce carbon emissions with unrealistic and unachievable timelines would further reduce available dispatchable generation resources, when there is no proven technology available to take its place at an affordable rate.
“The Electric Cooperatives of Arkansas are committed to a cleaner energy future,” Hasten said. “Our concern is the ongoing energy transition is moving at a pace that ignores current technological and market realities.”
What happens if demand for electricity exceeds supply?
This has happened, and recently. For example, in December of 2022, nine states experienced rolling blackouts when demand exceeded supply.
When electric demand is extremely high and there is not enough available generation, load curtailments are mandated to protect the electric grid from collapsing and to keep power flowing to as many consumers and businesses as possible.
A curtailment is a controlled reduction of power. It has a limited duration. It is not widespread. Controlled curtailment is always the last-resort measure to safeguard the electric grid.
Hasten said, “Our nation cannot afford to jeopardize the reliability of electricity for the ranches, farms, businesses and families of rural America. This is doubly true for Arkansas, given the fact that we serve members in one of the poorest states in America.”
What about wind, solar and batteries? Can’t they make up the difference?
While wind and solar are an important part of a balanced energy portfolio, they are intermittent, weather-dependent resources; they only generate when the sun shines and the wind blows. Current battery technology only provides energy for four hours or less, much less than is required to cover nighttime periods, let alone long periods of cloud-cover or other weather conditions that would disrupt solar or wind production. While advancements are being made, battery storage for a large electric system at a reasonable price is not a reality now or anytime soon.
Do the Electric Cooperatives of Arkansas support wind and solar?
The cooperatives support all types of wholesale generation resources, including wind and solar. In fact, AECC’s newest generation facility — the Woodruff County Solar project, a 122-megawatt solar array near Augusta — should begin operation soon.
While intermittent resources like wind and solar are an important part of a balanced energy portfolio, they do not provide a steady, constant supply of electricity required to provide reliable power when members demand it.
Hasten said, “We should integrate low-carbon sources, including wind and solar, onto our electric grid. However, we must do so in a responsible manner that doesn’t risk our economic and national security.”
Where do we go from here?
As always, the Electric Cooperatives of Arkansas remain committed to the needs, safety and well-being of the 1.2 million electric cooperative members in the Natural State, and that is central to our Balance of Power philosophy. The cooperatives strive to educate members and policymakers and support policies that focus on electric reliability.
Hasten said, “The goal should be to maximize power supply diversity by balancing traditional sources like coal, nuclear and natural gas with wind and solar, all while continuing to innovate and integrate new forms of generation, resulting in a Reliable, Affordable and Responsible electric grid that is critical to every aspect of our lives.”
The Balance of Power series will cover evolving technologies and additional baseload generation in future installments.